The Ursuline sister of Mount Saint Joseph has been tapping the "nun network"
She’s a nun without a convent or a habit, but Sister Larraine Lauter is surely on a mission from God.
As the executive director — and only full-time employee — of Water with Blessings, she’s a ferocious advocate for getting clean water into the hands of mothers and children in impoverished countries across the world.
Lately, the Ursuline sister of Mount Saint Joseph has been tapping the "nun network" and coordinating with pastors, medical missionaries, humanitarian aid groups — anybody headed to Nepal who’s willing to stuff a suitcase with small water filters that save lives.
The two recent earthquakes in Nepal have killed more than 8,000 people and displaced many thousands more. Crumbling buildings and landslides have made it difficult to find clean drinking water. Sister Larraine wants to remedy that, one household, one family at a time.
So far, partners have hand-delivered more than 500 filters, which are about the size of an empty toilet paper roll and lighter than a cellphone. But she needs help to deliver more.
"Their faces will tell you what the filters mean," she said. "They are just full of joy because you can kill a child overnight with E. coli. And they know that."
Sister Larraine Lauter demonstrats the filter Water with Blesssings sends around the world to fight dirty water. Within minutes Lauter is drinking from Floyd’s Fork.
In her small Middletown office filled with rosaries, crosses and pictures from partners in Uganda, Guatemala and Haiti, Sister Larraine works the phones while a handful of volunteers write thank-you notes, open mail and tally donations.
"How many suitcases can you take?" she asked a caller from a medical mission in Hattiesburg, Miss. She shipped 25 pounds of filters to a man in Minnesota. It’s all he could fit in his suitcase. To anybody flying to Nepal she asks: "Can you at least take a few?"
Sister Larraine nudges the way nuns do, or as longtime friend the Rev. Jim Cobban, pastor of Middletown First Baptist Church puts it: "She wills it to be."
"She came and spoke one Sunday morning, and everybody held their breath while I drank Floyds Fork water," Cobban said of her filter demonstration. "And I haven’t grown three horns yet. But the church is very excited about it. Folks have volunteered. They’ve donated."
The program’s success, he said, is a testament to who Sister Larraine is.
"If I introduce somebody new to her it’s like throwing fresh meat in a pool of piranhas," he explained. "She has them on her volunteer staff before that meeting is over."
The urgent need for clean water worldwide makes clear her tenacity. She rattles off data like a statistician. Children die of water-borne illnesses every eight seconds. Dirty water is the No. 1 killer of children under age 5. E. Coli infection can kill a child overnight.
The price of failure
But she also knows the price of failure. The developing world is littered with broken water solutions — literally. Busted pipes, stolen water lines, missing valves. She knows because a community-based water filtration system she helped install years ago in Honduras failed.
The gang-ridden, survival-based community had no reliable leadership so the $2,500 system lasted a week. Someone stole — or "liberated," as Sister Larraine prefers — the car battery that powered it. And the pipes were dug up within days.
There had to be a better way.
"So we asked ourselves: Who is the most reliable group, closest to the children who are at the household level?" she said. "If we can find something small to get in their hands we can do this. So we started talking about mothers."
That’s how the model for Water with Blessings was born. Since incorporating in 2011, the organization has distributed 6,000 Sawyer PointOne filters to people desperate for clean water in 28 countries. By the end of the year Sister Larraine hopes it will be 10,000. In five years, the goal is to distribute 25,000 a year.
Using the same technology as kidney dialysis but on a much smaller scale, the plastic filters filled with hollow fibers are attached to a tube in a bucket. There’s no power needed. Gravity does the work. Once the water drips through, it’s clear of all the contaminants that cause dysentery, intestinal parasites, cholera, typhoid and many other illnesses that lead to death.
The filter is good for a million gallons of water. It can filter more than 450 gallons a day, and will last at least a decade. The filter and all of the training materials cost $60. And for a limited time, the manufacturer has reduced the filter’s cost by half for those being sent to Nepal.
But every aid organization faces the same fundamental challenges: Will people accept the solution? Will it last?
That’s where the Water with Blessings model is different. The organization targets "mothers and others," those who play the role of mom. No matter where the organization sends filters, mother culture is always the same, Sister Larraine said. Mothers share, and they don’t say no to other people’s kids.
"I always say God has put smart women everywhere," she said. "This is not gringo to the rescue. This is not that model. I am troubled by that model. And even if these women are barely literate they can still be amazing trainers."
A spiritual foundation
There’s also a spiritual foundation to the program: Water is holy to everyone, and compassion transforms the world. But Sister Larraine makes sure volunteers don’t proselytize or use the filter as a hook to convert people. Water with Blessings’ partners are Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic and all manner of Protestant denominations.
"I don’t care what your spiritual foundation is," Sister Larraine said. "We even have water women who practice vodoo. Basically what we ask of them is that they will make a commitment, sign a covenant with God — however they call God — that they will filter for three other families for six months. They understand that this is a holy commitment."
Sister Larraine believes the spiritual component is why the solution lasts.
"Sustainability is — if you walk away and never come back — the solution will endure," she said. "That’s the real trick, and that eludes people. And I really believe the secret of that is a spiritual foundation."
The method has worked. One boy, for example, whose family received a filter seven years ago in Honduras hasn’t had a single bout of diarrhea, dysentery or other stomach bug since.
"How can you put a price on that?" she asked.
Tia Benton, an engineer for GE who lives in Russellville, took a long-term mission trip to Nepal in 2011. When the recent earthquake hit, she was worried about her host family. They were sleeping outdoors, had no water and no way to cook. They were eating dried noodles.
She called Water with Blessings to ask if she could take some filters with her on an international medical response team. After only four hours of training, she jammed 120 filters into her luggage and flew to Nepal.
Pani (PAWN-ee), water in the local language, was the only word she knew so she had to rely on a translator. But she understood the science, the membranes, the microns. What she hadn’t thought much about was drinking the water.
But there she was, standing before a group of women during her first training session with a bucket full of dirty, brown water. She asked the child who brought it where it came from. The little girl pointed to a stagnant pond with a cow standing in it.
"You’re telling these mothers they can feed their babies with this water," Benton said. "I’m thinking, ‘I can’t stand up here and demonstrate it and not drink it.’ … I was nervous. So I did. I drank it. I drank all of it. I drank so much that I had to clean some more so I could show them how to back flush it. And I was totally fine. Everything was fine."
By the end of the trip, she was clinking glasses of filtered water with moms, children and Buddhist monks. She gave away all 120 kits.
"I didn’t want to go," Benton said. "Just like everybody else watching TV who said, ‘Oh man. That’s such a shame. Wow, look at all the devastation. That’s awful.’ Nobody wants to go. But then it’s like I told my mom: ‘If we lived in a world where nobody wanted to go so nobody went, what would that be like?’ "
Benton is so convinced about how life-changing the filters can be for families she wants to take more on another trip abroad, maybe her next vacation. Of course, Sister Larraine wants to know when.
Back in her Middletown office, Sister Larraine pulled the strings of the nun network again. First a conference call with a Bernadine Franciscan nun in Liberia and later a sister from the Notre Dame du Sacre Coeur order in Haiti. She fielded calls from people interested in becoming what she lovingly calls "water mules" and those who simply wanted to write a check.
Sometimes she works in the dark to save money on the electric bill — when the glow of the computer screen reflecting off her glasses is the only light in the room. The less money she pays in expenses, the more water filters she can send abroad.
"God is very busy," she said. "We’re just hanging on for the ride."